Opening Eyes to Global Hunger

Lester R. Brown looks back at his landmark analysis that explored the rise of global hunger.

| December 2013

  • Lester R. Brown was one of the first to shed light on the looming prospects of global hunger due to the planet’s growing population.
    Photo By Fotolia/Kybele
  • "Breaking New Ground" recounts the work of Lester R. Brown, a founder of the global environmental movement.
    Cover Courtesy W.W. Norton & Company

Lester R. Brown has been praised as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers,” and has been recognized as a founder of the global environmental movement. His new biography, Breaking New Ground (W.W. Norton & Company, 2013) traces his early days as a junior analyst at the USDA to his emergence as a pioneer environmentalist. This excerpt is from the first chapter, in which Brown recounts the formulation of his landmark study on global hunger and agricultural supply and demand.

A Landmark Study On World Hunger

On a cold evening in late December 1963, I arrived at the train station in Cheyenne, Wyoming, to head home to Washington, DC. My wife, Shirley, and her parents, along with our three-year-old son, Brian, were with me. After a week celebrating Christmas on her folks’ ranch, we decided that Shirley and Brian would stay with them for an additional week.

The first thing we saw as we entered the station was the January 6 issue of U.S. News & World Report. The cover story was “Why Hunger is to be the World’s No. 1 Problem.” Shirley and I were stunned. The four-page feature article summarized the principal findings of Man, Land and Food: Looking Ahead at World Food Needs, a study I wrote as a junior analyst in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Shirley’s parents did not know quite what to make of our reaction.

The study contained the first comprehensive projections of world food, population, and cropland to the end of the century. “For the first time,” U.S. News & World Report said, “a careful study of world food supplies has been matched with the facts of expanding world population. The conclusion: in most of the world, creeping hunger looms.” The magazine noted the threat posed by growing human numbers to future food security by quoting the study: “Man has scarcely begun to assess their long-term impact.”

On the train headed eastward, crossing Nebraska and then Iowa, I tried to imagine the effect of the study. It was a breakthrough, that was certain. Beyond that I could not visualize exactly how it would affect me personally, at the age of twenty-nine, or the role that it might play in the world. It was clear, however, that my supervisors could no longer think of me as just one of a group of thirty-two “Junior Professionals” in the Foreign Agriculture Service (FAS) of the USDA.

In Man, Land and Food I stated that India’s population was projected to expand by 187 million over the next fifteen years. During this period India would have to find a way to feed an added population equal to that of the United States. I concluded that “the old equilibrium between [births and deaths] has been destroyed, but a new equilibrium has not yet been developed. That the current disequilibrium cannot continue indefinitely is certain. Until a new balance is created, however, man must seek to accelerate growth in the supply of food to match the increase in numbers.”

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